Six garden chores to do before winter

This year our first killing frost hit most of Vermont in mid-October. We awoke one morning to find a frosty lawn while, overnight, the leaves on tender plants like tomatoes and impatiens had turned a nasty black color. The growing season was drawing to a close.
Since the frost was widely forecast, I had spent the previous day harvesting the last tomatoes, covering my chard and raspberries to prolong their harvest in the warmer days ahead, and finally marching a number of plants that cannot take an outdoor Vermont winter — including my special collection of winter-flowering Camellias — into our cool greenhouse, which will be their home for the next six months. I felt a little like a modern-day Noah.
However, as we all know, that initial frost did not signify the end of the gardening season. There will be plenty of crisp sunny days ahead and the ground will likely remain soft and workable until almost Thanksgiving. I think of November as the “evening of my gardening year” — and the perfect time to prepare my garden for its long winter slumber.
So, before I hang up my tools for the winter and head to the wood stove to read a good book, here are six outdoor chores I will be squeezing into this short window of time.
Cut back
As soon as possible, I like to cut back all the perennials that have become blackened by the early frosts, including garden stalwarts like salvia, hostas, daylilies and phlox. This quickly tidies up the garden, making it a much more pleasant place to work.
However there are plenty of other perennials — such as asters, catmint (Nepeta), blue star flower (Amsonia) to name just a few, as well as garden ferns — whose leaves continue to look great during the late fall. So typically I like to wait until at least mid-November before cutting these plants back for the winter.
And then there are still other perennials — including many elegant ornamental grasses, as well as astilbes, sedums, purple-cone flowers (Echinacea), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) and barrenwort (Epimedium) — that both add interest to the garden in winter and also provide food and habitat for birds and other wildlife. Most of these I leave standing until next spring.
Weed the flowerbeds
As I cut back my various perennials it is easy to spot those sneaky perennial weeds like dandelions that may be lurking between the plants. Thus late fall is also an excellent time to dig them out — roots and all — and consign them to the compost pile.
However, rather than raking the ground bare, I like to leave a light covering of fallen leaves on my flower beds as winter protection for the plant roots.
Plant bulbs
Each spring my snowdrops, scilla and narcissi are a pure delight as, seemingly like magic, they pop out of the cold ground to welcome the new season. But, if you want that magic next spring, you need to plant them in the fall.
Ideally most bulbs should be planted around the middle of October in order to give their roots adequate time to develop.
But if you still have some bulbs you have been meaning to plant — or indeed if you can’t resist a bargain at your local farm store — it is not too late to plant bulbs in early November. Get them in the ground as soon as possible, and then, to prevent the ground in that area from premature freezing, top off the soil with chopped leaves or finely ground bark mulch.
Spread compost
Compost is often called the gardener’s “Black Gold” — an elixir that creates healthy soil and promotes strong plant growth.
For instance, if you have heavy clay, then the organic matter in mature compost will lighten your soil, making it easier for you to cultivate around your plants, as well as for the roots of those plants to grow outwards into the soil and absorb the nutrients and water they need.
But, should you happen to have sandy soil, then compost will help it retain moisture and delay the soil drying out between rain showers.
In addition, whatever your soil type, compost contributes numerous valuable nutrients and micro-organisms to the soil, all of which promote strong healthy plants.  Indeed, after many years of religiously adding compost to my garden each fall, I rarely use supplemental bagged fertilizers in any of my beds.
I maintain four closed compost cubes behind our woodshed where they are easily accessible from the kitchen. These act as a year-round repository for all of our compostable kitchen waste, which I augment with coffee grounds that the kind staff at Gourmet Provence in Brandon put aside for me each week.
I also maintain some considerably larger cubes up near the vegetable garden. Throughout the growing season, I will throw in any soft garden clippings and spent vegetables. I add fallen leaves at this time of year, as well as ash from the wood stove during the winter.
One of the final activities of my gardening year is to completely empty the contents of each compost cube onto a large tarp. After returning any recognizable scraps back into the bottom of the cube for further decomposition, I will thoroughly mix up my ‘black gold’ and deposit it around all my plants and across the vegetable garden.
Prepare the veggie garden
Spring is always a busy time for me. So I like to do as much as possible in November that will reduce my workload in May.
Each fall I clear the veggie garden of this year’s spent vegetables and then carefully remove any perennial weeds.  
Next I cover the entire surface of the soil with a winter mulch to prevent any weeds from getting a head start on me next spring. Originally, I would use about six layers of newspaper topped with several inches of hay as my winter mulch. Then, come springtime, as I was ready to plant a particular crop, I would uncover just enough soil for that crop and after everything was growing then pull the mulch back around the young plants.
However, I discovered that this newspaper/hay technique slowed the soil warming in early spring, meaning I needed to delay planting my first crops — a problem in Vermont’s short growing season.
So more recently, I invested in a number of inexpensive tarps in various sizes. Now every year in late fall, I will cover all the available soil in my veggie garden with tarps held in place by sturdy tent pegs through the grommets. In early spring the tarps prevent the weeds from germinating while at the same time helping warm the soil.  Thus I am able plant my crops a couple of weeks earlier. 
As soon as I am ready to plant a particular section, I remove just the tarp in question and pop the seeds or young plants in the weed-free ground. Now I will apply my newspaper and hay mulch sandwich to help keep the weeds at bay for the remainder of the summer.
Clean tools and tidy the shed
For many of us, our gardening tools represent quite an investment. So it behooves us to care for them well. 
My final activity of the gardening season is to assemble all my tools, sharpen each cutting blade, and then rub the metal parts of every tool with a light lubricating oil to prevent rusting.
After that I carefully store each tool in its allotted spot in my toolshed. Come next spring, each tool will be easily available and ready for the new gardening season ahead.
With this accomplished, I am ready to say the gardening season is finished for the year, and to settle down by the wood stove with a good book.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a landscape designer and Vermont Certified Horticulturist. She also teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. She writes about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com.
Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see his photographs at The Brandon Artists Guild and at northcountryimpressions.com.
You can reach Judith at [email protected].

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